Tag Archives: biodynamic farming

A ‘Sound, Sensible’ Organics Program

By Jim PathFinder Ewing

The National Organic Program (NOP) must be sensing increasing numbers of small farmers turning away from the USDA’s certified organic program. Many are instead choosing other varies of “agroecology” (as the United Nations terms it), such as biodynamic farming, permaculture, ecofarming and the like — methods that employ organic practices without using the term “organic,” which requires USDA approval.

It’s not that organic is bad; far from it, the nation needs more organic farmers and more organic food, especially grown and sold locally which benefits local economies.

The problem is that NOP has become expensive and the paperwork enormous, pushing small farmers out of the program. In Mississippi, for example, the state agriculture department stopped offering certification in December due to budget cuts, and the national Farm Bill reimbursement program has been halted. It has meant farmers having to pay up to $1,000 or more out of pocket to fly in an inspector from another state to certify their crops. That’s a big financial hit for all but the big operators.

Moreover, the NOP trend has been to coddle big farmers and ignore the rest. Certified organic operations are increasingly just huge, often transnational, industrial agriculture outfits that comply with the minimal standards to keep their certification.

Doubt it? Just look at the who’s who of certified organic brands that opposed labeling genetically modified ingredients (GMOs) in food in California. (See my JFP column, Jan. 16) Think their hearts are in organic? By definition, “organic” prohibits GMO! How can one be against labeling and for organic?

Apparently noticing that it’s losing its appeal to small farmers, on the eve of the long Easter weekend (maybe so nobody would notice), NOP announced a new campaign called its “Sound and Sensible” program. See: http://ow.ly/jI6gV

It says it wants the organics program to be “accessible, attainable and affordable.” But, mostly, the changes seemed aimed at current operators, not new ones, focusing on relaxing paperwork requirements, reducing penalties and offering more training for certifiers.

That’s great for a big industrial farmer who can afford it (and may actually just have the effect of watering down organic requirements even more), but what about the legions of new small farmers? It doesn’t matter how lax NOP regulations or enforcement may be (and who wants that anyway?) if it costs $1,000 to certify your crop — or, equally important, if there is no local state, extension or federal support for growing organic.

More organic farmers and food would be great, but it will take more than paperwork changes to turn the tide to more grassroots support for certified organic among small, local and beginning farmers. Now, that would be sound and sensible!

(Disclosure: I serve on the board of directors of Certified Naturally Grown, a national nonprofit offering certification for small, direct-market farmers and beekeepers who practice natural growing methods. The views are my own.)
Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @edibleprayers or visit blueskywaters.com.

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Sustainable Agriculture: What Is It? And Why?

This is a talk I gave to a group of farmers and agriculture policy makers Friday, Dec. 7, 2012, in Enid, Miss.
Sustainable Agriculture: What is it? And Why?
By Jim PathFinder Ewing

Two years ago, Gaining Ground – Sustainability Institute of Mississippi embarked upon an ambitious project: to build a Mississippi Sustainable Agriculture Network.
It had not been done before in Mississippi and so, it’s a signal achievement that now, with the help of grants from the Appalachian Regional Commission and Winrock Foundation, that GGSIM’s dream of a network of sustainable farmers in the state is finally taking off.
While GGSIM could easily see that there was a need for a network of farmers to help each other help themselves toward sustainable farming and help consumers find those farmers, actually providing a definition for “sustainable agriculture” proved a thornier problem.
As the eclectic board of GGSIM — composed of academics, food, farming and health enthusiasts and farmers themselves — discovered: each constituency seems to have its own definition of “sustainable” when it comes to food and farming.
The board was confronted with a suddenly problematic issue: Just What is Sustainable Agriculture?
Being an organic farmer, my first thought was — of course! — sustainable farming is farming that follows the sustainable practice of organic farming.
But, as others on the board pointed out, there are many different flavors of “natural” or eco-sensitive farming: ecofarming, ecological farming, agroecology, permaculture, biodynamic, the list goes on.
Looking for an authoritative source, I checked the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has its own definition:

A 1996 Memorandum defined the USDA’s sustainable agriculture policy by stating: “USDA is committed to working toward the economic, environmental, and social sustainability of diverse food, fiber, agriculture, forest, and range systems. USDA will balance goals of improved production and profitability, stewardship of the natural resource base and ecological systems, and enhancement of the vitality of rural communities. USDA will integrate these goals into its policies and programs, particularly through interagency collaboration, partnerships and outreach.” (Source: USDA website: http://us.mg205.mail.yahoo.com/dc/launch?rand=1156758050)

In case this seems a rather nebulous definition, attempting to include all aspects of farming into one definition, it has a reason for being that way. In the 1990 Farm Bill, which this policy seeks to implement, the mandate for sustainability itself, while required, was weakened by this language: defined as to “make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, (italics mine) natural biological cycles and controls…” and further limited to “having a site-specific application.”

The words “where appropriate” has been used as a modifier to allow the use of materials and practices that would seem to be at odds with sustainability, while the “site specific” limitation has all but negated its widespread use or effectiveness as a program goal.

So, on the one hand, you have a USDA policy that requires sustainability and on the other a policy that seemingly negates its impact or advisability, generally relegated to a policy of appreciation for natural resources as “where appropriate.”
But that also must be understood from where USDA stands regarding the bulk of its programs. Using artificial, chemical, manufactured and synthetic inputs is called “conventional” agriculture, or “industrial farming.” It is by any normal definition “unsustainable” because it relies exclusively on artificial, chemical, manufactured and synthetic inputs. Yet, USDA is attempting to incorporate “sustainability” into this model.

So, the USDA definition wasn’t — and isn’t — much help to us in defining Sustainable Agriculture.

As the GGSIM board found, there also wasn’t a great deal of consensus among farmers themselves who believe they are practicing sustainable agriculture.
For example, farmers surveyed by GGSIM who defined themselves as sustainable  ranged from those who followed organic, natural, permaculture or biodynamic processes and no synthetic inputs; to those who used spot synthetic inputs (such as RoundUp herbicide) but otherwise did not use synthetic inputs; to one farmer who used horses for tilling fields and horse manure for fertilizer and believed using gasoline or diesel engines for tractors or tiller was unsustainable, but also used synthetic materials when needed. As one farmer pointed out, you can’t be sustainable as a business if you can’t sell your crop; if spot treatment is what’s required to stay in business, so be it.

This engendered a whole new conversation among the GGSIM board: farmers’ economic sustainability.
In fact, one of GGSIM’s board members, Preston Sullivan, had written an article about it, titled Applying the Principles of Sustainable Farming, published on the National Center for Appropriate Technology website. Preston’s piece, https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/viewhtml.php?id=295, is an excellent primer on sustainable farming. It perfectly lays out goals of sustainability.

As Preston reports:
Sustainable farming meets environmental, economic, and social objectives simultaneously. Environmentally sound agriculture is nature-based rather than factory-based. Economic sustainability depends on profitable enterprises, sound financial planning, proactive marketing, and risk management. Social sustainability results from making decisions with the farm family’s and the larger community’s quality of life as a value and a goal.

In addition, since GGSIM is about about sustainability from a variety of vantages, we must include the human, social and emotional aspects. One definition that board members rallied around was by Sustainable Table:

Sustainable agriculture is a way of raising food that is healthy for consumers and animals, does not harm the environment, is humane for workers, respects animals, provides a fair wage to the farmer, and supports and enhances rural communities. (For more, see: http://www.sustainabletable.org/intro/whatis/)
By taking all of these definitions that we could agree upon and putting them together, with our own concerns, GGSIM came up with this:

MSAN Definition of Sustainable Farming:    

Sustainable farming meets environmental, economic, and social objectives simultaneously. It promotes:

a.     The health of farmers and their communities;

b.     Stewardship of the environment and  non-renewable resources; and

c.     Long term financial viability

These are lofty goals.
So, now, Why?

Why Sustainability?
The “Why” closely follows the “How” of sustainability when it comes to sustainable agriculture.

Globally, we are witnessing incredible changes in our planet that cannot be overlooked, from climate change to destruction of critical ecosystems such as the tropical rain forests, to depletion of fish stocks to degradation of air, water and land. The burning and depletion of fossil fuels is a major element in this environmental change, and agriculture is a major part of global environmental distress.
In fact, there is a growing movement to name a new geologic era, the Anthropocene, to reflect the cumulative ill effects of human impacts upon Earth starting with the beginning of agriculture some 10,000 years ago.
While these larger issues are of concern, and require action — from curbing greenhouse gas emissions, promoting recycling, approving international agreements to protect our soil, water and air — our focus is on what we as farmers can do to minimize impacts upon the areas where we live, work, eat and breathe.

Certifying agencies — USDA certified organic, Certified Naturally Grown, etc. — can define farm practices they will or won’t allow. It is not GGSIM’s aim to tell people what they can and cannot do. We can support sustainable practices that do not result in negative outcomes or ecological unsustainability.

Some of those would include: Decline in soil productivity; wind and water erosion of exposed topsoil; soil compaction; loss of soil organic matter, water holding capacity, and biological activity; salinization and/or desertification. These topics go hand in hand with biodiversity vs monocultures; use of natural vs synthetic inputs; crop rotation and cover crops; composting; soil and water contamination/pollution/treatment.

Those concerns lead to this truth:
The more toward ecological in the farming practices, the more resilient and sustainable the system; the more artificial, chemical, manufactured and synthetic the practices, the less sustainable the system.
For these reasons, I would suggest that as a practical model, sustainable farmers use the evaluation forms provided by Certified Naturally Grown.
CNG is a private, nongovernment, nonprofit certifying agency for small direct market farmers and beekeepers. (I am on the national CNG board of directors and helped craft the guidelines.) While it’s up to farmers themselves whether to be certified by CNG, USDA or any other group, or not, the reason I suggest using the form is that it generally follows the National Organic Program guidelines, but it is also crafted as a worksheet for farmers to determine their own goals — where they are and how they want to get to a more sustainable, natural growing system.
See: http://www.naturallygrown.org/programs/documents

In coming months, MSAN will be working with farmers to develop model farms.
Sustainable farmers will benefit not only from input and expertise from outside groups but from among themselves.
Afterall, that’s central to MSAN: Encouraging Growth of the Sustainable Farming Community in Mississippi through workshops and conferences, farm tours and mentorship programs.

Now that we have a definition of sustainable agriculture that we can live with, and know why we have to have it, let’s apply it, shall we?

Jim PathFinder Ewing is an organic farmer and author, a GGSIM board member and chairman of the GGSIM Food & Farming Committee. His most recent book is “Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating” (Findhorn Press).

For more on Ewing, see: http://www.blueskywaters.com

For more on GGSIM, see: http://www.ggsim.org

For more on MSAN, see: http://www.ggsim.org/gardening/ms-sustainable-agriculture-network

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook or follow him @EdiblePrayers or @OrganicWriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

‘Seed schools’ can nurture local heritage plants

March 23, 2012
‘Seed schools’ can help nurture local heirloom plants

A novel approach toward helping young people ensure biodiversity  in our world is studying seeds in the wild and planting them for food in  the garden.
Called “seed schools,” they should be in schools everywhere.
According  to Native Seeds SEARCH’s Seedhead News, Gary Paul Nabhan, sometimes  called “the father of the local foods movement,” was recently named to  an endowed chair at the University of Arizona’s Sustainable Food Systems  Program.
Nabhan helps seed school students name their own plant  (garden-bred or in the wild). “Once it’s in print and described,” he  says, “you can’t patent it. It
becomes public domain.”
Most  Americans probably aren’t aware of the pervasive practice of  corporations claiming ownership of common plants and seeds, giving them  exclusive use.
Seed School’s Bill McDorman, Native Seeds SEARCH’s  executive director, notes that land grant universities were in part  established to provide seeds for
farmers, but most of their research now  supports further privatization of what was once part of the public  trust.
In recent years, multinational corporations have bought up  many  seed companies, discontinuing production of many varieties and  substituting their
own patented genetically modified seeds (GMOs).
According to the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, 96 percent of food crops available in 1906 are no longer available.
The  American public has all but given away its ability to grow its own food  to profit-making corporations and the government. Once that ownership  is gone, we’re all serfs to those who own the seeds and plants that feed  us.

Local heirloom food explained: A wonderful book on  indigenous heirloom foods in Mississippi (Appalachia and the South, too)  is The Moving Feast by Allan Nation (Green Park Press; 2010; $ 25.60).
It’s called that because Native Americans would move their crops from field  to field, creating the parklike forests early settlers found. Food grew
abundantly without artificial chemicals. Such practices, Nation  explains, continued until the 1930s. Organic farming, Nation says, is  essentially another
name for those practices.
Nation, publisher of  The Stockman Grass Farmer magazine, is something of a hero across the  U.S. for his promotion of raising cattle naturally.
Such  luminaries as celebrity farmer/author Joel Salatin swear by his work,  extolling heirloom foods and natural processes (often called ecofarming)  with
his magazine in Ridgeland.
Nation’s book should be on every  organic farmer’s bookshelf as a reminder that although, as the teacher  says, there is no new thing under the sun, there is
plenty of old lore  worth remembering.
It’s available at www.stockmangrassfarmer.com, 1-800-748-9808 or P.O. Box 2300, Ridgeland MS 39158-9911.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

‘One Straw’ – Zen and The Art of Farming

Aug. 19, 2011
Japan’s ‘One-Straw’ approach: Zen and the art of farming
Organic farming is the term that most in the U.S. relate to growing food without chemicals, but there are various other terms, including eco-farming, permaculture, biodynamic farming and natural farming.
In Japan, the One-Straw Revolution of natural farming has been under way since 1975, when the late Masanobu Fukuoka published his book, The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming (New York Review of Books Classics, $15.95, 2009).
One might call it an organic Zen and the art of farming.
Fukuoka, who died in 2008, believed that natural farming is tied to the spiritual health of the individual, and his growing methods were influenced by Zen Buddhism, Taoism and the Bible. He developed his method of “do-nothing” farming over 30 years. A man after my own heart, he believed weeds are beneficial to the crop, and that
reliance on chemicals and poisons is anathema to healthy plants or humans.
His way of farming is based on two main observations:
— Japan grew food for 1,500 years without artificial fertilizer or deep plowing or chemical herbicides, insecticides or other poisons on the same land with excellent results, but these fields “have now been laid waste by the exploitive
farming practices of a single generation”;
— Left on its own, soil will always be replenished by nature: weeds, animals, brush and trees. There is no need for fertilizer or chemicals to kill insects or weeds.
The success of his method is based on seeing agricultural practices strictly for their utility.
For example, he grew rice on dry land, rather than flooded fields, because he found that he can produce as much without the greater effort. The reason fields had been flooded when the practice began 1,500 years ago was to reduce weeds. He could do the same by planting white clover, with the beneficial result of adding fertility to the soil.
His four principles are:
— No cultivation. It stirs up weed seeds deeply buried and promotes erosion and loss of topsoil.
— No chemical fertilizer or prepared compost. “Left to itself, soil maintains its fertility naturally.”
— No weeding by tillage or herbicides. Weeds balance the biological community.
— No dependence on chemicals. “Nature, left alone, is in perfect balance.”
Those who practice organic methods will recognize these principles as, essentially, what has been called “deep organic,” or growing without chemical inputs of any kind – even those approved for certified organic.
His approach should be enlightening to anyone who seeks to grow food crops naturally.
You should be starting your seeds now for planting in a couple of weeks for a fall garden. Count back the number of days on the seed packet for full fruition before frost (around here, about Nov. 1).
We’ll be planting Labor Day!

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Reach for the stars when planting

Aug. 8, 2011When planting, go ahead and reach for the moon and stars

Cool winds may not be blowing, but now is the time for home organic gardeners to start thinking about their fall gardens.
Yeah, it’s hot, and humid, and the garden may be weedy, but if you want to have fall and perhaps winter greens this year, it’s good to start planning and preparing.
A good time to start actually digging and planting will be Labor Day Weekend, Sept. 3.
Until then, you can start figuring what you want to grow, ordering seeds, starting them so they’ll be ready to plant, and perhaps laying out a map of what goes where.
Last year, for example, we planted: collards, red kale, mizuna, purple mizuna, spinach, rainbow beets, rainbow chard, orange chard, red mustard, red turnips, purple top turnips, golden turnips, white turnips, red lettuce, red romaine, bibb lettuce, iceberg lettuce, hong vit radish, french breakfast radish, red cabbage, purple carrots, orange carrots, radiccio, broccoli and arugula.
Most of the leafy items made it into December (with a little help from Agribon, or row covers meant to counter frost). We also had cold frames that we later planted with carrots, lettuce and chard. Cold frames, simply put, are glass enclosures that can be opened during the day and closed at night during cold weather.
Ours produced throughout the winter and into spring, until they bolted, or went to seed.
Expertise: For many folks, planning how to plant according to the moon and stars – like the old folks did – is a concern. But it’s not information that’s handy anymore.
A good guide is The North American Biodynamic Sowing and Planting Calendar 2011 by Maria and Matthias Thun (Floris Books, $13.95).
While some folks might say they would never plant by “astrology,” it should be pointed out that the biodynamic guide is not based on the thousands-of-years-old constellations in the sky per se, but in their rising and setting, or sidereal astronomy. People who follow biodynamic farming, based on the early 1900s theosophical agricultural philosophy of Rudolph Steiner, swear by planting by
the moon and stars.
Maria Thun is an authority on biodynamics. Her annual sowing and planting calendar is published in 18 languages and is in its 49th year. It’s the “real deal” for a “farmer’s almanac,” based on knowledge like the old folks used, as opposed to the kitschy ersatz version sold in convenience stores.
According to the biodynamic calendar, Sept. 4-5 are good times to plant leafy vegetables.
The calendar is available from: SteinerBooks, Box 960, Herndon VA 20172-0960; phone (703) 661-1594.
Fresh in Madison: Check out the Livingston Farmers Market, just outside Madison at the corner of Mississippi 22 and Mississippi 463. Hours: 4-8 p.m. each Thursday.
Vendors, contact Lisa Kuiper atlisa.kuiper@livingstonspringsfarm.com.
Organic key to future? According to CareerBuilder.com career trends, No. 3 of 10 Jobs of the Future is organic farmer! See:http://on-msn.com/nsec5n.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Deer in the garden, and ‘Tomatoland’

July 29, 2011

Deer hate ‘talk radio,’ love organic gardens, and vote Green!


A reader was lamenting his problems with deer eating his garden produce, but said he thought he had found just the ticket for a deterrent.It’s a motion-activated device you connect to your garden hose so that that when set off it squirts the deer with water.

Sounds good to me! (I found one online called the Contech Electronics CRO101 Scarecrow Motion-Activated Sprinkler, list price $50. Ask for it at your local garden store.)

We’ve had problems with deer off and on over the years. Our philosophy is to generally plant enough to share and consider it doing your part to help the local wildlife. (I could go on and on about deer encounters in our garden. But how can you get upset with a momma and her fawn nibbling at your lettuce? Just plant more!)

But, if it becomes a problem, there are a couple of things you can do.

Foremost, build a tall fence. That’s the only surefire method.

But, in our little corner of the universe at ShooFly Farm, we’ve found that deer hate talk radio.

When we had a problem with deer eating too much, we tried putting a battery operated radio out there. Symphonic music seems to have no effect. They may even have liked it. They didn’t seem to like rock music much. But talk radio really kept them away.

Of course, it could be the political viewpoints that explain this phenomenon. I imagine a deer, if given the chance, would pull the voting lever for more wildlife preserves and cleaner air and water with their little hooves.

Some of them might even be more radical, intent on passing local zoning laws requiring all gardens to be organic, thus pesticide-free and purely tasty, and ban tall fences around them.

Yes, I’m sure, deer, if given the chance, would vote Green!

But I suspect it’s probably the radio set low, not blasting, giving an erratic modulation of human voices that scares them away.

I’m told that if a barber will allow you to take swept hair cuttings from the shop’s floor to sprinkle around the garden, that will do the trick, too.

But, for me, I’ll stick with talk radio! For the deer, anyway.

Reader feedback: A reader reports that following organic methods, his turnips from last fall reseeded themselves in his corn field where they were kept cool in the stalks’ shade. He has the best of both worlds: Summer corn and fresh turnip greens!

Sizzling summer reading: For more reasons to grow your own tomatoes specifically, and all veggies generally, read this summer’s hottest food book: Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook (Andrews McMeel, 2011, $19.99).

It’s subtitle explains why: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit.

Some of the book’s topics I’ve outlined in columns, such as why storebought tomatoes taste like cardboard (due to hybrid varieties to survive shipping, etc.). But a lot is grim news, too:

•The lengths to which industrial agriculture will go to produce “food” that’s saleable but perhaps not nutritious or safe;

•The truly frightening working conditions that are endured, including documented cases of actual slavery of farm workers, making a compelling case for better laws, more enforcement and implementing fair food practices.

For anyone interested in our food system, Estabrook’s book ranks right up there with Fast Food Nation, Fair Food and the Omnivore’s Dilemma for insightful, relevant food reporting.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Homesteading, canning, grilling

July 22, 2011
Homesteading, canning, grilling offer garden allureWith the summer heat and crops coming in, a lot of folks start thinking about what to do with all this organic produce.
Perhaps you’ve given as much as you can to relatives, neighbors friends, maybe, up to and including strangers on the street.
I’ve actually heard of people who wouldn’t leave their cars unlocked because they were afraid friends would leave bags of produce on their seats.
The solution, of course, is canning and pickling.
Just about everybody has a neighbor, mom or aunt who knows how to do this, and they often may even invite people over to have a big “can-a-thon” for preserving fruits and vegetables over the winter.
With this in mind, there are some books on the market that help with what in former years was considered just home living, but today is called homesteading – or “making do” with your garden, two hands and elbow grease.
One with a great canning section is Modern Homestead: Grow, Raise, Create by Renee Wilkinson (Fulcrum, 2011, $26.95). It’s chock full of down-to-earth instructions and plans for skills as diverse as preserving foods to building a chicken coop to caring for goats.
Filled with beautiful photos and illustrations, Wilkinson tells pretty much everything anyone needs to know to get started in sustainable living, especially in urban and suburban areas. It’s a compact resource that should be kept handy, with a valuable index for looking things up.
Another good book but more geared toward city dwellers is Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living by Rachel Kaplan with K. Ruby Blume (Skyhorse, 2011, $16.95).
A little “edgier” in tone, from Oakland, Calif., Urban Homesteading gives the basics of homesteading, but beyond that, it goes into areas such as ways to more efficiently heat and cool one’s home, retrofitting houses and grounds (including “cob” structures of dirt, water and straw) and even building top-bar Kenyan bee hives (more natural and inexpensive do-it-yourself versions).
It’s great for sparking new ideas for looking at your own homestead afresh.
If you are looking for more in-depth information regarding animals and homesteading, there’s yet another book that fills that bill: The Backyard Homestead Guide to Raising Farm Animals by Gail Damerow (Storey, 2011, $24.95). It’s subtitle tells all: Choose the Best Breeds for Small-Space Farming, Produce Your Own Grass-Fed Meat, Gather Fresh … Rabbits, Goats, Sheep, Pigs, Cattle, & Bees.
A great book, totally informative, Backyard Homestead will have you staring out the window wondering if maybe a few belted Galloway cows might actually improve the looks of the place, even – and maybe especially – if you don’t have a big spread.
With these three books, one could make a good start at “making do” with modern homesteading.
Canning workshops for farmers market sellers Thursday in Jackson and Aug. 2 in Hernando:The Acidified Canned Foods Training for Farmers Market Vendors is a one-day workshop to teach the basics of food safety and regulations for processing acidified foods.
This training will qualify you for processing acidified foods that can be sold in local, certified farmers markets in Mississippi.
A General Farmers Market Food Safety Training will also take place afterwards.
To register or for more information, see www.fsnhp.msstate.edu/farmersmarkettraining or call: Anna Hood, (662) 325-8056; email: annah@ext. msstate.edu.
Grilled Veggies: For a tasty treat, and to keep the house cool, try grilling vegetables outdoors. My favorite is grilled okra, peppers and tomatoes! (Try okra alone; it’s not “slimy” but with a dry texture and smoky flavor.)
We use a grill wok (stainless steel square with holes everywhere; we bought ours at Walmart) to create great stir fries with veggies that would normally fall through an outdoor grill.
From my beautiful wife Annette: You can grill a cheese sandwich or panini if you lightly brush oil on the exposed bread, cover with a small plate and weight it with something heavy (like a flat rock).
We marinate meats, chicken and fish to greatly reduce HCAs (heterocyclic amines) and other carcinogens caused by grilling (veggies don’t produce HCAs).
Be sure to use anti-oxident rich ingredients, such as rosemary, turmeric, ginger, garlic, onions, red wine, balsamic vinegar and marinate in the fridge for a few hours or overnight. Or brief pre-cooking in a microwave (one minute) brings HCAs out with the “juice,” which should be discarded before grilling. Grilled chicken has the highest HCAs, and fish also develops them.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

‘Farm on Wheels,’ nematodes, ‘greenhorns’ helpful

July 14, 2011
‘Farm on Wheels’ offers hands-on organic food outreachRecent graduates of the Mississippi School of Math and Science have converted a school bus to biodiesel and turned it into a sustainable “Farm on Wheels.”
Based in Oxford, it’s a rolling greenhouse, chicken coop and more that will serve as an educational outreach tool.
The Farm on Wheels made stops in Jackson, Starkville and Hattiesburg in recent weeks. It plans to travel throughout Mississippi and the South and return in time for the fall school year so Mississippi schoolchildren can take a look.
The Legislature this past session passed legislation to study alleviating “food deserts,” or areas in the state where no fresh produce is available. This Farm on Wheels could be a great tool for outreach so people in underserved areas can be reintroduced to self-sufficient living by growing their own food.
I say, “reintroduced,” because within the living memories of many Mississippians, growing vegetables and having a few chickens was the norm. But, unfortunately, since World War II, the mechanization of farming, the use of synthetic fertilizers and herbicides, and elders having died off, too many rural people have lost the knowledge of how to grow for themselves.
The surging popularity of Community Supported Agriculture is one helpful method, where farmers obtain subscriptions for growing food for others by selling shares in the crops, thus raising needed money upfront to be able to afford to plant.
That is bringing fresh, nutritious, organically grown foods to ever increasing numbers. Community gardens are also springing up in urban areas of the state; for example, at Tougaloo College, operated by Rainbow Natural Foods Co-op in Jackson.
Where it’s not economically feasible to run full-time stores in rural or urban areas, such community oriented ventures can fill in the gap.
They are a benefit to everyone and are becoming popular across the Magnolia State, along with ever more local farmers markets being created under the auspices of the Mississippi Department of Agriculture & Commerce.
For more about the Farm on Wheels, see: http://msmobilefarm.com/Or, on Facebook: www.facebook.com/farmonwheels.
It’s getting a little late in the season for it, but some bug issues can be solved by using beneficial nematodes – roundworms that live in the soil.
Nematodes can be a “bad” thing – some spell death for tomatoes, for example. But others only attack insects that prey on plants.
They are most effective when ordering by soil type.
Arbico Organics (www.arbico-organics.com) sells a variety for use on sandy soil that attacks armyworm, artichoke plume moth, Asian cockroach, beet armyworm, black cutworm, bluegrass weevil, codling moth, corn earworm, cotton bollworm, cucumber beetle, fall armyworm, fly larvae, fruit fly, German cockroach, leaf miners, mole crickets, tobacco budworm, wireworm and more.
Other varieties are for lawns or high clay soils, and even attack ticks and fleas.
They can be ordered for garden sizes up to fruit growers’ orchards and full farm sizes. Check it out. If nothing else, it could disrupt the cycle for next year or help with fall planting.
•Online: Here’s a blog for young people by self-described farming Greenhorns for Greenhorns, with links to farm-related blogs by and for young people getting into farming:http://thegreenhorns.wordpress.com/
•Online: In Kansas City, there’s a food truck called The Beans and Greens Mobile to combat local food deserts; see: http://bit.ly/lQNlAc.
•Online: Farmers markets beat supermarkets on affordability:http://tinyurl.com/ylzpkwv.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Beneficial insects, bug database helpful

July 8, 2011
Beneficial insects, bug database can help organic gardens
In midsummer, the number of blights, pests and other issues that can plague the organic garden can seem overwhelming.
There are two resources we’ve used to address some of them; first is adding beneficial insects to control pest outbreaks; second is a computer database that can instantaneously diagnose the various symptoms and offer certified organic solutions.
Ladybugs are the most popular beneficial insect for the garden. We bought some to control an aphid outbreak the year before last and they are still prolific; we have also bought praying mantids.
According to Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply, which sells ladybugs, they are capable of consuming up to 50 to 60 aphids per day and one ladybug can consume many as 5,000 aphids in its lifetime.
They also eat a variety of other insects and larvae including scales, mealy bugs, leaf hoppers, mites and various types of soft-bodied insects.
Typically, ladybugs are sold in large numbers; 70,000 ladybugs per gallon, or 18,000 per quart. Use one gallon for up to three acres. In orchards, use one gallon per acre. Grain crops may require as little as one gallon for every 10 acres.
For melons and cucumbers, use one gallon for every 15 acres.
Next year, you might consider the praying mantid. It eats aphids, beetles, flies, mosquitoes, moths, caterpillars, wasps, generally, any insect it can catch. The praying mantid’s egg sac can contain up to 40,000 eggs. They usually hatch in spring.
You can buy live ladybugs and praying mantid egg sacs online (even Costco sells the latter). We bought ours from Peaceful Valley, Box 2209, Grass Valley CA 95945, phone: 1-888-784-1722, or: www.groworganic.com. And, yes, praying mantids will eat ladybugs. So, you might want to stagger them out a bit.
If you are finding strange plant symptoms, here’s a handy online resource for finding safe, organically OMRI approved non-toxic pesticide solutions at the Organic Pesticides /predators Database: http://bit.ly/g6Eqgu.
The service is provided by National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, Box 3838, Butte MT 59702; phone: 1-800-346-9140.
Treat your kitties: Try growing catnip in your garden, or in a pot. It’s easy to grow (it’s a member of the mint family) and comes back year after year. Just take a few leaves, chop them or crumble them up, and put them on the floor or in a sock or kitty’s favorite place (not in food).
Catnip also makes a nice tea for humans. It contains nepetalactone, a natural sedative, and is anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and muscle-relaxing. (Not recommended for expectant or nursing mothers.)
Fresh produce: Just a reminder for those looking for fresh fruit and veggies: The Mississippi Farmers Market, located at 929 High St. adjacent to the fairgrounds, is open on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
For more information, call (601) 354-6573, email FarmersMarket@mdac.state.ms.us or visitwww.msfarmersmarket.com.
Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

‘Tilth’ helps hold soil moisture

July 1, 2011
Check ’tilth’ in organic garden for soil moisture
I guess weird weather is the “new normal” now, with weeks of no rain, crops fried in 100-degree days, then rain falling finally, blessedly, but perhaps too little too late for many this season.
Given the heat, now’s a good time to check the moisture holding capacity of your soil. If you have adequate tilth (loamy material) and regular watering, you should have only a light crust on the top but can push in your finger without a great deal of effort.
But if it’s too hard for a gentle push of the finger, don’t despair. It can take years to build up the soil. We’ve dumped tons, literally, on our plots and they break down rapidly with acidic, sandy soil.
Remember, with organic gardening, the soil is everything, but it’s a moving target. It’s a constant balancing act between biomass and soil digestion activity.
Take this as an opportunity for future growth: Just keep adding more compost and, in fall, more leaves or other vegetative matter to build up your tilth.
By the way, old folks used to put sawdust in their gardens. That’s fallen out of fashion, as it tends to eat up nitrogen breaking down. But if you are using foliar feeding – spraying kelp or fish emulsion to feed nitrogen for it to be absorbed through leaves – I believe sawdust could help hold soil moisture. That is, as long as it’s not chemically treated wood.
It was good enough for our Mississippi forebears and Helen and Scott Nearing – homesteaders in 1930s Maine (see their book: Living The Good Life). So, if you’ve got it, I’d use it.
Growing tip: You can grow your own natural sweetener using leaves from the Stevia plant. It’s not too late to plant to get some leaves by fall.
According to WebMD, it is useful for those who suffer from obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, metabolic syndrome and other weight-related medical problems.
The leaves contain the sweet glycosides stevioside and rebaudioside, which are 300 times sweeter than sucrose (table sugar). Seeds are commonly available and can be purchased from Burpee, if not locally. It grows prolifically, like mint.
We grow it and use it. Tastes great. I like it in my tea instead of sugar.
Summer reading: I recommend: Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All by Oran B. Hesterman (PublicAffairs, $24.99).
Founder and head of the nonprofit Fair Food Network and a former agronomy professor at Michigan State University, Hesterman is quick to point out that he is not writing about our broken food system from the standpoint of a chef or journalist, but as someone who has experienced it from plow to plate.
The observations he makes are similar to the popular notions of journalist Michael Pollan and chef Mark Bittman, but his methods are more direct, from developing locally profitable food distribution systems in urban and rural “food deserts” to joining corporations such as Costco in developing transnational fair trade supply trains that ensure living wages for producers and reinvestment in local communities.
Fair Food is a serious book about a serious subject. It offers ideas for local communities, as well as suggestions for local, state and national policy makers (I hope members of the Legislature read this book!) It should add immeasurably to the national conversation about fixing our food – and world! – for the better.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Permaculture, Organic, Slow Gardening

June 24, 2011
‘Permaculture,’ ‘organic’ and Felder all provide surprises
A reader asked, “What you do, this ‘deep or pure organic,’ is more like permaculture, isn’t it?”
I’d have to say that’s a pretty good stab at an explanation, but only part of growing organic.
The term “permaculture” was coined by two Australians, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, one of his students, to incorporate two concepts: “Permanent Culture” and “Permanent Agriculture.” Mollison said the concept came to him in 1959 while watching two marsupials browsing in the rain forests, seeing how flora and fauna worked together to be sustainable.
Since then, the term has grown to include a lot more than agriculture or gardening, embracing even political activity and international problem-solving.
One of the leaders in the field is Portland State University Professor Toby Hemenway, author of Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture (2000, updated 2009, Chelsea Green, $29.95) which I highly recommend.
So, what is a permaculture garden? Let me say that, the clearest way of understanding the concept would be to consider alternate phrases that essentially mean the same thing, such as eco-gardening, or creating an ecological or biodiverse garden with few human interventions.
Many of the practices of organic farming, such as nurturing natural insect, fungus and bacterial life in the soil, promoting vegetative decomposition and encouraging beneficial insects to keep balance in the garden, are elements of permaculture.
But, while organic gardeners may attempt to till the soil as little as possible, disturbed ground is anathema in permaculture, since it allows nonnative invasives (or opportunistic plants) to spring forward altering the ecosystem.
In our organic garden, we rotate crops, add amendments, and are constantly working the soil with compost to return the nutrients lost in crop production.
But in permaculture, the goal is to recreate dynamic, vibrant landscapes found in nature, creating a self-sustaining ecosystem with little if any human intervention.
So, they share some processes and aim toward the goal of sustainability and natural balance, but differ in degree and kind.
It’s not “all or nothing,” however. One can incorporate elements of permaculture in one’s food or flower garden.
See Hemenway’s book for photos of some wonderful garden designs that can incorporate permaculture in your backyard.
Felder’s book to be a classic! Speaking of good reads, our own fellow local garden columnist Felder Rushing has a new book coming out in July titled Slow Gardening: A No-Stress Philosophy for All Senses and All Seasons (Chelsea Green, $29.95).
I was sent a review copy, and I’m going to tell you the absolute truth: What a great book!
It covers everything a beginning – and expert! – gardener would need to know, including such “exotic” items as growing a “green” roof, creating a backyard wildlife habitat, secrets of fertilizing and more.
Perhaps the greatest gift of this book is that it lays gardening out as not a hard-to-do chore or activity of “experts,” but something everybody and anybody can do, without much fuss or muss. The purpose of gardening, as Felder points out, is to have fun. How often we forget that!
The photos are incredible, the book laid out well, with large type, and lots of
easy-to-follow instructions. It reads like an old friend, sitting on the porch, rocking, sharing ideas.
Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Gadgets for organic dads

June 17, 2011
Organic ‘gadget’ dads can check their ERGs, ORPs, Brix and sap!
Father’s Day is Sunday and folks looking for something for Dad might consider some gadgets.
I’m not much of a “gadget guy,” but even I find myself mesmerized by some devices.
Some call the Baker Creek Seeds catalog, with its full-color, glossy photos, “vegetable porn” because the depictions are just … well, any gardener would lust for such plump ripeness! Peaceful Valley, for gadget guys, must be similar.
Just looking at the catalog (www.groworganic.com), I find myself wanting “stuff.”
I mean, what garden gadget guy could do without an Oakton ERGS Meter ($79.99)?
What’s an ERG? Why, glad you asked: that’s Energy Released per Gram of Soil – “the amount of energy available to the growing crops and microorganisms,” the catalog helpfully explains.
A reading above 1,000 means a salt problem and potential for root burn and nematodes; below 200 indicates no crop growth.
Now, presumably, you’ve got your pH level ascertained, via a soil sample, but they have meters for that, too.
But who could be without knowing how his ORP is doing?
Don’t know what an ORP is, you say? That’s Oxygen Reduction Potential (or available oxygen) in the soil. ORP and pH readings, together, provide an rH value. That Redox Value (rH) can determine the ability of humus building for the soil, or with a high reading, loss of carbon.
So, I guess you need your ORP Tester ($159) and possibly pH Test Kit ($14.99) to ensure that you’re not accidentally adding to global warming!
And, if you really want to be a hotshot, and show how your organic produce is measurably better than the cardboard stuff on grocery shelves, you need your Sap Extractor ($39.99) along with your Refractometer ($69.99) for measuring Brix.
High Brix indicates adequate nutrition, fertilization success and good immune systems in the plant; sugar content measures maturity. Take that, industrial agriculture!
The only problem with all this is that if I bought all of this “stuff,” I couldn’t afford to buy any seeds!
Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Organic practices lessen E. coli threat

 

June 9, 2011

Organic practices lessen threat of disease

The news this week that a deadly outbreak of E. coli bacteria in Germany was from an organic farm raised flags with me, as much for its improbability as for its deadly nature.

Since those first reports, the German government has backed off its claim that an organic farm produced the outbreak.

While it’s possible for any farm – including an organic farm – to have produce infected by the bacterium, and consumers should always wash produce from the grocery, regardless of source, it’s less likely for organic produce for a variety of reasons.

First, the incidence of virulent strains of E. coli is a direct result of conventional (not organic!) farming of beef, where animals are “finished” on corn.

Ruminants are not naturally equipped to digest corn and it leads to bacteria (E. coli among them) being excreted from the gut. When coupled with the common practice of conventional agriculture (not organic!) to feed antibiotics to farm animals, virulent strains resistant to treatment are formed.

These bacterium are found in the manure of conventionally raised farm animals (not certified organic!) and that manure is often used to fertilize crops.

Here is where the possibility of E. coli can enter the organic food train, depending on the producer:

In certified organic vegetable crop production, strict manure handling is required.

Specifically: The U.S. regulations for organic production require that raw animal manure must be composted unless it is applied to land used for a crop not intended for human consumption; or is incorporated into the soil not less than 120 days prior to the harvest of a product whose edible portion has direct contact with soil; or is incorporated into the soil not less than 90 days prior to the harvest of a product whose edible portion does not have direct contact with the soil surface or soil particles. See 7 CFR 205.203 (c)(1) and (2).

Residual hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, disease organisms and other undesirable substances can be eliminated through high-temperature aerobic composting.

So, presumably, E. coli would be eradicated in certified organic crops – if manure is properly composted or incorporated.

Again, I’m not saying it cannot occur, but, for producers of organic crops, the likelihood of transmitting E. coli is much smaller.And, for those (such as in our case, for example) where only composted horse manure or composted grass-fed or organic cow manure is used, not “raw” manure, or from industrial agriculture confined and corn-finished herds, the likelihood drops to virtually zero.

Me? I say: Eat organic, eat local! Know your farmer. Compose your own compost and manures from known – or OMRI verified – sources.

For the home organic gardner: Anyone who is actually growing his or her own food and uses manure would do well to read the book: Holy Sh*t: Managing Manure To Save Mankind by Gene Logsdon (Chelsea Green, 2010, $17.50).

Online: For more on manures, see Organic Trade Association Q&A: http://bit.ly/eW35Gb.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Heat, drought hard on organic garden

June 2, 2011

Be nimble to adjust to hot weather in organic garden

This hot, dry spell we are in can wreak havoc on plants, so here are a couple of suggestions tailored for the organic garden.

First off, if you are having to water a lot, remember that city water treatment chemicals can build up and also stunt microbial life in the soil. So, it would be worth your while to invest in a chlorine filter. It screws into your garden hose. Filters are available at pool supply stores or online. If you don’t have a pond that’s untreated or rain barrels, this is the next best thing.

Second, frequent watering leaches nutrients from the soil. The best and easiest way to replenish the soil short term is by a top dressing of worm castings. Just apply a thin layer at the plants’ roots.

Third, the high humidity and cool nights with blazing heat during the day is stressing plants so that many may exhibit powdery mildew or blights, especially on tomatoes. You can remedy this organically by using Serenade Garden Disease Control. It is OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) listed, approved for certified organic crops. It is not a chemical or poison but contains Bacillus subtilis, a soil-dwelling bacterium that controls leaf blight, black mold, powdery mildew and many other diseases.

Nothing beats rain water, but these steps can help your 4×8-foot Jim’s Plot weather the drought.

Another tip that may not endear you to your neighbors, but helps, is allowing the weeds to grow between your plants. In this heat and humidity, the weeds trap moisture in the soil and shade the plants’ roots. This goes against the fencerow-to-fencerow monoculture industrial farming scenario, but it works well on small plots.

Allowing buffer zones, also, that is tall grass weeds to stand between rows or at various junctures, also encourages beneficial insects and gives cover to helpful fauna, such as toads, birds, butterflies and other wildlife.

While we’re at it, don’t be afraid to allow a planting to “go bad.” For example, we had some pretty expensive lettuces we planted in early spring that were almost immediately attacked by insects. But we waited to see what would happen and were rewarded to find that the bugs went for the lettuce but left our chard, carrots, beans, peas and other plants unmolested. The lettuce patch became what’s called “a trap crop,” that is, a patch specifically set aside for bugs to feed on, so other patches are left alone.

The main thing in growing organic is to allow your crops to discover their “feet,” and come into balance. You’ll win some and lose some, but by encouraging good soil and soil nutrients, and supporting helpful methods, rather than poisoning or destroying, allowing growth will be beneficial for you and your garden.

Reader response: I planted clover as a cover crop and now it’s taken over my garden!

Boy, that’s a problem I wish I had – and am actually trying to achieve with one of our fields!

For a cover crop, we planted a mix of New Zealand white clover and strawberry clover that’s supposed to be heat tolerant and withstand drought, while also crowding out weeds. It also provides 110-165 pounds per acre of nitrogen, which is sorely needed in our field.

To “solve” the clover “problem,” just till your crop strips about 3 feet across with 3 feet or more between the rows, and cover the strips with either newspaper, WeedGuard paper or cardboard. Poke a hole in the cover and plant your seed there. Next year, repeat the procedure 3 feet over, sliding your cardboard or redoing your WeedGuard or newsprint (both of which should have biodegraded).

In this fashion, you are allowing the clover to grow except where you are directly planting.

You also are constantly replenishing the soil in old areas while also enriching next year’s plot – essentially labor free. It’s also great for honeybees!

Organic Ag Grants: On May 24, the USDA released the Request for Applications (RFA) for its Organic Transitions Program.

The goal of the program is to support the development and implementation of research, extension and higher education programs to improve the competitiveness of organic livestock and crop producers, as well as those who are newly adopting organic practices.

The deadline is June 30. For more info, see: http://sustainableagriculture.net/blog/organic-research-rfa.

Food desserts: Gov. Haley Barbour recently signed into law a bill to establish a panel to study “food deserts” – that is, rural and urban areas in Mississippi where there are no outlets for fresh produce.

They might consider what local folks in Nashville are doing. In cooperation with Vanderbilt University, grocers, local farmers and health care professionals have started a mobile market. It’s essentially a walk-in trailer with healthy, nutritious food.

They identified the major issues as distance, time, childcare and transport. So, it travels to food deserts with produce for sale and is operated by volunteers.

Good idea! For more information, visit www.nashvillemobilemarket.org.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Better food, a better planet

May 26, 2011

Growing organic makes for better food, a better planet

I had a nice email exchange with a reader about organic gardening, in which he essentially said he “sort of” did it.

As I wrote to the reader, back in the 1980s and ’90s, I was doing as he is now, planting hybrids (Better Boy tomatoes were my faves) and lightly using chemicals. I thought that if I just limited the amount of synthetics, that would be “organic” enough, and I reasoned, what was wrong with hybrids, anyway?

It wasn’t until a few years ago, however, that I found that even a “smattering” of chemicals destroyed the delicate balance of organisms that make up a truly organic garden. By using chemicals to change one issue, such as blight, or bugs, or using harsh, synthetic fertilizer, necessitated even stronger artificial methods in a self-perpetuating cycle. And, all the while, I was destroying the delicate microbial life that enriched the vegetables, ensuring nutrients were going from the ground into my body.

I had no idea that when I occasionally threw a handful of anhydrous ammonia into the compost or soil, I was killing the unseen universe that supported abundant, nutritious, healthy produce.

Further, I had no idea that by relying on hybrids that I was voting with my dollars to decrease planet’s biodiversity.

Every year, between consumers not planting rare seeds and giant Ag Biz conglomerates buying up seed stocks and either converting them to genetically engineered products or discontinuing those lines, we’re reducing food plant diversity.

What happens when we no longer have access to diverse seeds? We set up our food seed supply to be owned by a handful of private multinational corporations and open the way for potential famine when a pathogen inevitably mutates to attack those few lines of patented seeds. And, by the way, do you think that entire nations will calmly starve to death when crops fail and there are few commercial seeds available except those genetically vulnerable to disease?

So, I changed my thinking and behavior to true organic. This is the path I believe is something of a “back to the future” approach, away from petrochemicals and artificial fertility and working toward restoring the earth and bringing balance for healthy crops – and people!

Grow organic. Cultivate heirlooms and rare seeds. Enjoy the rich bounty of the earth. And know you are doing your part for better food, a better planet, for future generations.

Reader response: Ratio for applying compost?

A little bit of compost goes a long way. Apply 1/8 inch to 1/2 inch on your garden. That translates to 1-4 cubic feet of compost for 100 square feet. Incorporate that into the the top 2-4 inches of soil by digging or raking or tilling. Apply more thickly to poorer soils, more lightly to richer soils.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to lay it on more thickly if you have it. Just work it in the soil. At ShooFly Farm, we have several 50-gallon “spin” composters that we use, and they digest down to about 1 1/2 to 2 cubic feet every 90 days. We just keep filling them in sequence, so we generally have compost routinely available. You can also use windrows; that is, pile up the material and turn it from time to time until it’s digested into dark, rich matter.

Author Michael Pollan makes fun of organic gardeners’ fixation with compost, but it’s for a reason: The plants you put into your body contain the nutrients that are in soil. If your soil does not contain the full array of minerals and trace elements, along with the proper beneficial bacteria that allow the plants’ roots’ efficient intake of them, then your food and your body will be lacking essential vitamins and minerals.

It’s called “full belly” syndrome. You can buy processed food, or vegetables grown in depleted soils, and fill your belly, but won’t receive all that you need for strong muscles, bones, hair and teeth. Nurture your compost. By saving such waste as food scraps, coffee grounds, egg shells, melon rinds and yard clippings, you are turning trash into gold. Your compost is like money in the bank – in the coin of health for you and your family!

Reader response: I have a big problem with fire ants taking over my raised beds. How can I control them organically? There is an OMRI-approved fire ant bait called Garden Safe; it’s sold at some Walmarts. You may have to order it online. Although it’s OMRI approved for certified organic gardening, we usually dump coffee grounds on the mounds if they are in the garden per se, then use the Garden Safe around the garden. The active ingredient is Spinosad, which is a bacterium. You can also pour boiling water on the mound.

Online. Plants looking bedraggled? Clip this out and save it: Common symptoms of soil deficiencies: http://www.organicgardening.com/learn-and-grow/nutrient-deficiency-problem-solver.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Reality and ‘myth’ of organic

May 20, 2011

Consumer must sort out reality from the ‘myth’ of organic

As hard as it is for me to say this, and as much of an advocate of “organic” as I may be, there’s a lot to be desired in the genre.

In fact, since the U.S. Department of Agriculture has commandeered the name “organic,” and now defines it, a lot of small, organic farmers are at a loss as to how to describe themselves.

For example, at our little corner in the earth, we don’t use pesticides or herbicides. Period. But there are a number of such chemicals that are allowed as USDA certified “organic.” (For a list, see: http://www.omri.org.)

The USDA also allows a lot of other practices that small farms tend to reject, as well (especially regarding confinement of animals, preferring instead to allow chickens free range and cows to have access to pasture).

I got to thinking about this after seeing an ad on Facebook for Cascadian Farms, which touted itself as “organic” since 1972.

It may have started out as a “pure” organic farm back then, but it’s now a division of cereal giant General Mills.

Yet, here are thousands of people on Facebook “liking” part of the Big Ag industrial food machine because they think it’s something it’s not – part of the “myth” of “organic.”

When people see the word “organic,” they probably think it’s from small, independent farmers, who care about what they eat and grow. And they may even envision old hippies or young idealists or at least “salt of the earth” types who enjoy farming for its earthy pleasures and honest values as much as making a buck.

But, increasingly, they would be wrong. It’s part of the “myth” of organic that Big Ag organic seeks to promote.

Most of the “organic” produce you see in the supermarket is not produced by small farms – unless you deem tens of thousands of acres as “small.”

It’s shipped from far away factory farms – even other countries. For example, Cascadian Farms buys its “organic” fruits and vegetables from China and Mexico, among other countries. U.S. Silk soy milk, for instance, is made from “organic” soybeans bought in China and Brazil.

Consumers looking for the safest and most nutritious foods buy organic. That remains true. And the “myth” of organic is not truly a myth, in there are local organic farmers across the nation who are growing pure, fresh, healthful food without chemicals. The reality, though, is that there are factory farms that dominate the market and most of the certified organic food in grocery stores is produced by these farms.

The reality is also that many of these large conglomerates are cooperative arrangements whereby small organic farmers sell to the big operations to distribute their food nationwide.

So, while the “myth” of organic is the idea that its driven by the small independent farmer, the reality covers the range from the folks (like my wife and I) making the myth a reality to the large corporate food giants that make mockery of the myth. Truth is within the myth, but diffused and often distorted.

It’s up to the individual consumer to make reality from the myth, and you, the reader, can choose the reality you prefer by your choices.

You can create a better reality than the myth of organic by using these buying criteria.

•Good for you: More fresh produce.

•Good for you and environment: Organic produce.

•Good for you and your community: Any local fresh produce.

•Best for you, your community and the environment: Local, fresh, organic produce.

And, finally, the best of all possible worlds in my view anyway: Growing your own fresh, organic produce and sharing it with others – either friends, family and community members – through gifts or creating and selling through community supported agriculture where they buy “shares” in the produce you grow for weekly delivery, or selling to the local store, farmers market or fruit stand.

The bottom line is that without the myth of the small organic farmer being the one supplying the produce at Walmart and Kroger, the giant “elites” (industrial agriculture with a designer label) couldn’t exist; without the giant elites spurring the demand for their products, the consumer wouldn’t even be aware there was such a thing as organic pesticide-free farming. And without both united against watering down strict organic practices (including rejecting genetically modified seeds and sneaking in toxic chemicals), small farmers wouldn’t have the market they do and a growing demand.

Certified organic is better than “conventional” chemical farming. But increasingly, what is deemed “organic” accommodates the factory farms which can vastly underprice the hand-grown methods of small farmers.

The big farms do, however, have pretty labels and lots of advertising that promotes the “myth.”

Eat local. Know your farmer. That’s the way to go. Or, better yet, grow your own!

For a list of supermarket “organic” brands and the corporations that own them, see: http://bit.ly/i6zF44.

In Mississippi:

•There are only about 25 USDA certified organic growers. Most that sell locally list themselves with Local Harvest: http://www.localharvest. org.

•Not all farmers who grow organically are USDA certified. A few Mississippi farmers are Certified Naturally Grown, see: http://www.naturallygrown.org.

•Locally, some organic farmers sell at the Jackson Farmer’s Market on High Street on Saturdays and at Rainbow Natural Foods on Old Canton Road. Check the Mississippi Department of Agriculture & Commerce website for farmer’s markets statewide: http://www.mdac.state.ms.us.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Heirlooms are heirlooms for a reason

May 13, 2011

Heirlooms prove their worth in organic gardens

There’s been something of a backlash in national gardening circles about heirloom varieties, which I suspect is being egged on by seed suppliers.

You may recall that an heirloom variety of a plant is one that has become traditional, such as in our neck of the woods the Arkansas Traveler tomato (bred in Arkansas for its ability to withstand heat and humidity) or the Marion tomato (which was the staple of south Mississippi’s truck farming tradition).

In late March, there was a rather heated debate about heirlooms in The New York Times, of all places (“Heirloom Seeds or Flinty Hybrids?,” March 23), the gist of which was that if heirlooms were any good there would be no hybrid varieties.

Modern seeds, which are generally hybrid crosses, produce a “more vigorous plant, better resistance to diseases,” said the owner of Johnny’s Seeds, for example, noting in a car analogy: Why not buckle up in a 1936 Oldsmobile coupe?

Expecting a sound retort, I was surprised that the article went downhill from there, the consensus being that heirlooms are outdated, susceptible to disease, don’t produce well and generally ought to be discarded in favor of the more “modern” hybrids. By the same token, some commented that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) take that a step farther. After all, they are products of Science and can even include animal genes in them to take on Nature!

Well, needless to say, as an organic grower, I was stunned by the whole tenor of the piece, and its commentary, but have since seen its premises knocking around the Internet like an echo chamber, with the article serving to legitimize those points of view.

I could almost buy it, if I didn’t know better. It’s astounding to me that anyone with any knowledge of actually growing plants could swallow such inorganic manure.

By its very nature as an open pollinated plant (as opposed to a forced hybrid – or GMO – that can only produce once, then die, along with its unique mix of selected genes), an heirloom adapts to changing conditions in its environment.

If there’s a drought and only a few Arkansas Travelers make it, for example, then save those survivors’ seeds and the next Arkansas Travelers you plant are likely to be drought resistant.

Diseases? Insects? Fungus? Odd growing season? Save those seeds, and the next editions will be tailored to survive those conditions.

As opposed to hybrids – or heaven forbid, Frankenfood GMOs – successive heirloom generations adapt to the conditions where you live!

The reason heirlooms are heirlooms is because they are so desired and adaptable with consistent qualities that people want. That’s the definition of heirloom: A valued possession passed down through succeeding generations; in this case, a plant of enduring value.

So, I guess folks can have heated debates in the Times and on the Internet about how “outdated” are heirloom varieties.

But seedsavers and folks who actually grow what they eat and eat what they grow know better. Heirlooms prove their worth in the organic garden again and again.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Mother’s Day moms can get naked in garden, grocery

May 6, 2011

Mother’s Day moms can get naked in the garden, grocery

Stumped for something useful and unique to give Mom on Mother’s Day on Sunday?

Why not give her some tips on how to get naked in the grocery store or garden – the organic garden, of course! – and get healthier while she’s at it.

There’s actually a new book scheduled for release in June: Eat Naked: Unprocessed, Unpolluted & Undressed Eating for a Healthier, Sexier You by Margaret Floyd (New Harbinger, Oakland, Calif., $16.95).

Of course, the title doesn’t refer to actually getting nude, but rather the dos and don’ts of processed foods, and regarding organic and sustainable farming practices and how they relate to the foods we eat.

In it are all manner of facts that tend to get glossed over; for example, most folks know that soy is a great protein source. But what Floyd points out is that soy also has in it enzyme inhibitors that make it less than ideal as a food source. Preparation can make soy more useful to the body, such as through fermentation, she notes.

Floyd outlines other issues that affect nutrition, such as gluten intolerance, “good” and “bad” fats, best ways to eat nuts and seeds, along with meat and fish facts (it’s not strictly vegan or vegetarian).

She even has a checklist not only for shopping, but “How Naked is My Dinner?” including: “Is it made from fresh ingredients? Are they organic? Are the veggies local? Is the meat from pastured animals or industrial? …”

It’s a fun title for a sound book on food and nutrition. Since it won’t be out until until next month, you can clip out this article and hand it to her on Sunday along with a gift card for your local bookstore and a note: “Run free, Ma!”

If Mom already has a handle on how she grows, eats, and shops, how about how she views food, farming and gardening and the ethical responsibility of consumers in shaping food choices?

For an interesting read, see: Organic Manifesto: How Organic Farming Can Heal Our Planet, Feed the World, and Keep Us Safe, by Maria Rodale, Rodale Books, 2010, $23.99).

Folks my age will remember her father, Bob Rodale, who died in a car accident in 1990, and her grandfather, J.I. Rodale, who died in 1971, and were among the founders of the modern organic movement.

Maria Rodale is following in their footsteps, although, some might say that, despite the rather aggressive title of her book, she’s a bit “soft” on industrial farming and latitude given Big Ag in adopting the “organic” label.

The fact is, as she notes, her father and grandfather would be astounded that organic was now “mainstream.”

Nonetheless, the book is “must read” in the current state of the evolution of organics and offers great insights into how modern farming is being transformed – and areas in which greater transformation is needed.

As she notes, the consumer is dictating the future of agriculture through food choices, requiring sustainability, accountability, transparency and safety. The challenge is to keep organic standards rigorous and reliable.

Finally, if you’ve wondered how young moms or moms-to-be may be faring in agriculture, there’s a wonderful book about a couple of 25-year-olds starting their own organic farm.

The Wisdom of the Radish: And Other Lessons Learned on a Small Farm by Lynda Hopkins (Sasquatch Books, Seattle, 2011, $23.95) is a sweet, sometimes humorous and sometimes bittersweet tale of a young woman learning the joys and heartaches of growing food for others.

I found myself sadly shaking my head in agreement and wishing some things were different; such as the harsh realities of the marketplace, the hard work involved for little pay. But it remarkably outlines the optimism of young people going into farming, a trend called The Greenhorn Movement, and speaks with love and tenderness toward the magnificent calling that is being stewards of the earth.

A great book. I won’t tell how it ends, but it does surprise!

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Try ‘kitchen’ garden, vegan fertilizer

April 29, 2011

Try organic ‘kitchen garden,’ vegan fertilizer for tasty food

While you are in the planting mood this spring, you might consider some “specialty” gardens such as a kitchen garden.

Annette has planted a wonderful kitchen garden outside our back door where a peach tree stands. For years, the peaches have fallen to the ground and mixed with leaves to form a rich loam.

She turned the ground up and planted a variety of herbs, shallots, onions and a couple of tomato plants.

It’s about the size of a “Jim’s Plot” – 4×8 feet – although kind of winding around in a lima bean shape.

Now, when she’s cooking, she can just reach out the back door and grab what she needs!

Some common herbs that can be grown are oregano, cilantro, stevia (a natural sweetner for those who want to avoid sugar), mint (but watch out, they can propagate!), basil and lemon verbena.

You might also consider a Three Sisters Garden, which is to create mounds of earth and plant a corn stalk in the middle of each one, with squash and beans radiating from the mound. The corn provides a trellis for the beans, while the squash grows outward shading the roots and holding moisture.

Native Americans farmed this way and it’s sustainable, as the beans add nitrogen to the soil for the corn. You may wish to add some fish emulsion, too.

Reader response: Are there any vegan fertilizers? Yes.

Some people reject the idea of using animal parts or residues in their gardens when growing organically.

Commonly, fish emulsion, blood meal and other animal products are sold separately or included in fertilizers.

However, for vegans, Peaceful Valley Garden Supply sells Vegan Mix 3-2-2 fertilizer: $9.99 per 6-lb. box or $29.99 for 25-lb bag. See: http://www.groworganic.com or call 1-888-784-1722. It’s made with no animal products or byproducts, and contains soybean meal, alfalfa meal, kelp meal, rock phosphate, stonemeal and greensand. Of course, you can purchase the ingredients separately and mix it yourself from any available source.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

A quick organic kitchen garden

April 22, 2011

Here’s a quick and easy way to plant your organic garden

Today is Good Friday and Earth Day – you can’t do better than that for gardening: Traditional planting time and a way to honor the earth!

In honor of this day, I’m going to give a quick way to start an organic garden for those who haven’t a clue.

Doing this, I know I’m going to get some flak from serious, dyed-in-the-wool organic growers – or fellow “deep organic” gardeners, as Eliot Coleman calls those of our ilk. But when this column started, it was stated up front that it was for anyone interested in growing organic and especially novices.

So, here’s a quick organic garden, cheating a little bit:

•First, lay out what we’ve been calling the “Jim’s plot” – a 4-by-8-foot area in a sunny spot, or at least not total shade all day.

We set that size because it’s easy to make and easy to tend to and just about anyone can find the space for it, such as a spit of land in an apartment, condo, duplex or town home.

•Lay out newspapers in it about 5-8 pages deep. That’s to deter seeds and grass from the growing. The paper will decay after a season, but by then, the vegetation should have died and become humus.

•Outline the 4×8 plot with landscape timbers or treated lumber, to keep soil in.

•Now here’s the “cheating” part: Fill about halfway with Miracle-Gro Organic Choice Garden Soil. Note: I’m not endorsing this for any other reason than the fact that it is widely available (including most Walmarts), relatively cheap and is certified as organic with the Organic Materials Review Institute; if you can find another garden soil that’s OMRI approved, feel free to use it.

•Go around your yard, or a helpful neighbor’s or up and down the highway (if not sprayed with poison) and take a shovel full here and there and put it in the 4×8 plot. You will be amazed at the good soil you can find.

For example, behind the shed you may find where years of leaves have fallen and decayed leaving good, rich humus. Over there beneath the trees, use your shovel to scrape away the leaves and take some of that soil. Check ditches where the soil is deep and dark. A shovel full here and there will soon fill the 4×8 plot.

•Mix the soils and plant your tomatoes, or cucumbers or squash. Tomatoes will need 3 feet between the plants and something to climb (you can buy wire baskets at garden stores; I recommend 54-inch tall) or stake and tie. Same for cucumbers, so they can grow up and not out. Any squash or melons are going to sprawl beyond the 4×8 enclosure, if you plant them, so be prepared to mow around them.

•Dip the seeds or roots in a mixture of water and kelp meal and fish emulsion (available as organic fertilizer at garden stores, or online; see: http://www.groworganic. com) and give each plant a cup of the mixture to soak in.

•That’s it! The reason for the “store bought” soil is so that it’s quick and easy. It’s not great soil (which is why I recommend amending it with natural loams); but it’s adequate to get started.

Assumed in this is that once its planted, the gardener will now take it upon him or herself to learn more, and particularly to start keeping a compost bin for non-meat kitchen scraps and other vegetative matter such as tree leaves, old fruit, apple cores, grass clippings and the like.

The compost can start in a canister in the kitchen to be handy, then be emptied outside daily to a bin or box, and “turned over’ once in a while. It must be “cooked” properly or fully broken down before being added to the garden. Over time, you will take great pride in your compost, since you know that all the “inputs” there are “free” fertilizer and you are importing nutrients for your soil and, ultimately, you and your family through your plants, rather than exporting the fertility of your soil or trusting inputs to strangers and agrigiants.

Do not put raw vegetative matter into your garden as it will actually leech nitrogen from the soil that’s needed by the plants as it decomposes.

Happy Good Friday and Earth Day, everyone! What a great time to plant a wholesome, healthy, nutritious, organic garden!

Reader response: Is using cotton gin trash allowed in an organic garden?

It always makes me nervous when I hear people who grow organic saying they use matter from cotton fields, since so many chemicals are used in conventionally grown cotton. I personally wouldn’t do it for that reason.

I’m told, however, that my concerns are outdated, and that it’s usable (National Organic Program Rule 205.203(c)(3) Uncomposted Plant Materials, listed OMRI).

In the past, a concern with cotton gin waste was arsenic. The EPA outlawed arsenic acid as a defoliant in the early 1990s and now requires that all chemicals used on cotton be bio-degradable within two weeks. (Some producers grow organic cotton, as well, eschewing poisons.)

Various commercial cotton byproduct soil amendments are composted, also, which makes me feel a little better. It’s really up to the individual how “picky” you want to be about your garden, your food, your body. (I’m very picky!)

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.